Archives for the month of: January, 2012

Yesterday, while riding my bike, I rode past a figure who enthusiastically waved, “Hello!” Later on the same path I got some more cheery greetings and waves – a nice change from typical grunted replies in other places I’ve lived. All of these wavers were Aboriginal; the first a toddler wearing no more clothes than he was born in, the second a mob of adults. It got me thinking about prejudice and the assumptions I have grown up with. While Port Augusta’s Aboriginal population is 17% of the total, my home town’s is 0.1%. What we don’t know we fear. Without anything overtly said, in my childhood I somehow imbibed the collective presumption that those with dark skin are inferior to us. It is a hard thing to shake.

Perhaps, however, minorities are more understanding of each other and their differences. At Mass yesterday, our Iraqi priest commented on one of the photos on the powerpoint. It was taken by Anne, one of the Sisters of Mercy in my Port Augusta community, after the recent devastating fires near here. She captioned it with the words of the day’s psalm: “Teach me your ways, O Lord.” In the lower right corner of the picture you will see a sheep, venturing out into the burnt paddock. It seemed to me it was following the wrong way: into the black. Yet how biased we are by the English language! “Black sheep of the family”, “blacklisted”, “Black Plague”: they all signify something negative, undesirable. In contrast, the words of Psalm 51 are, “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (white = pure). Our priest, however, jumped to no such conclusions. He said, “Isn’t it wonderful that the sheep is starting out anew to create new life.” Suddenly the sheep seemed courageous and the burnt paddock a place of fresh beginnings.

This evening as I emerged from the detention centre, a young Aboriginal lad called out, “Excuse me Miss, but have you seen my friends?” And he listed the names of the detainees that he had met at school, but had not been able to see during the holidays. I hope the world he grows up in will contain more of the concern he expressed and less racism. In short, that we look to the heart, not appearances. Jesus said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgement.” (John 7:24)

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Last night we watched the DVD documentary called Hope. It is the story of Amal Basry, who survived the sinking of the SIEV X boat, which was conveying asylum seekers to Australia in 2001. 353 people drowned; only 7 of the 45 survivors were granted asylum in Australia. The others, no less in need, were accepted by Scandinavian countries. Amal came from Iraq where her family were persecuted and some of them killed. Despite her tragic history, her good English made her a passionate spokesperson about the event that no-one wanted to remember. With waves of emotion brimming in her eyes, she related how she floated for 22 hours in the ocean, through a night when boats came past but rescued no-one. What saved her was a dead woman that floated by. Amal’s son took off the woman’s lifejacket and gave it to Amal, before being swept away by the waves. So Amal wore the lifejacket and clung to the floating body until her delivery came.

Yesterday we were also visiting in our own detention centre in Port Augusta. A primary-school age Vietnamese boy was sharing his loneliness and his story. Let’s call him Huy (not his real name). Huy is the kind of boy that seems scared of everything – vehicles are too dangerous, sports are too rough. In Vietnam he was an orphan who escaped on a boat without any other family. He told me how he was afraid of starvation during the days he spent on the boat. He was exhausted and forced himself to eat just enough to survive. His body could not get warm, as they had no blankets or coverings. Half the time he spent at the back of the boat where the waves were always threatening and half the time he tried to get close to the engine, where it was warm. Yet somehow, he made it to Australia and has safety, food, friends, shelter and clothing for the time being. His future is uncertain, but for the moment he is thankful.

I don’t think the waves encountered by Amal or Huy will ever be forgotten by the survivors. These painful memories are the fuel for the fire of justice, the foundation for the shelter of compassion and the walls for the well of gratitude. Amal died from cancer shortly before the documentary was completed, but her Australian granddaughter was given the same name. In Arabic, it means Hope.